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Ready For Anything

The Esquire Guy's Guide to Saying You're Sorry

Magazine Contributor
Articles Editor, GQ magazine
min read

This story appears in the September 2013 issue of . Subscribe »

Apologizing is generally inadvisable, for a couple of reasons.

First, it's a lot of work. You have to take the time to articulate the apology, and the offended party has to respond in some way. This is business; we've all got things to do. If you've caused offense, change your behavior. Relationships in business--contractual, interpersonal, whatever--almost always come with second chances built in.

Second, if you find yourself having to apologize a lot, you've got bigger problems to deal with than the intricacies of a proper apology.

So, apologize only if it's warranted--when the offense might cause long-term harm to your reputation. This is an offense that can't be overlooked or ignored. It's not just that you were late to the meeting; it's that you were late to the meeting and you asked your partner to lie about your whereabouts. And then you never thanked him. And then you made fun of his socks in front of everyone. The point is, there are offenses that must be acknowledged if you are going to survive in your position--not your professional position but your moral or ethical one.

So when it is warranted, you have to apologize in a complete and unadulterated way. No hedging. No weasel words. No vague assurances that it won't happen again. A proper apology is an efficient, rich, bold thing. There's no other kind, really.

Here's what an apology requires, as set forth by Aaron Lazare, former dean and professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and author of the book On Apology:

  1. An acknowledgment of the offense.
  2. An explanation of your actions.
  3. An expression of remorse.
  4. Some sort of reparation.

Thus, it follows:

  1. "I was late to the meeting. I asked you to lie. I made fun of your socks."
  2. "I thought that your lying for me was a small price to pay for my inability to manage the simple task of being at a meeting on time. As for your socks: Hula girls just aren't my taste."
  3. "I regret compromising your ethics. I regret demeaning your choice of hosiery."
  4. "I am going to tell everyone why I was actually late. And I am buying you some new socks."

You're acknowledging not just a professional failing but a moral one. That's the only point of an apology: to correct a moral wrong. As Lazare has said, when you apologize, you're "affirming that both parties have shared values and agree that the harm committed was wrong." And the gravity of a moral wrong demands that an apology be unequivocal. Says Ryan Fehr, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business and a psychologist who studies apologies and forgiveness: "If you admit responsibility but don't say you regret anything, then you're justifying your actions. You're saying, 'Yes, I did this, but here's why.' If you admit regret but not responsibility, then that's an excuse. ('I was late to this meeting because of traffic.') A good apology needs to be clear in saying you were responsible for what happened and also clear in saying you regret what happened."

But anyone can apologize if an apology is thought of as merely a technical thing. Satisfying the four steps of an effective apology is meaningless if it doesn't seem like you mean it. As important as the apology itself is sincerity--which requires emotion, something that's not always a virtue when it comes to interpersonal communication in business. But with the apology it's essential.

A Sorry State of Affairs"You have to maintain both a rational and an emotional conversation," says Brad Smith, executive vice president of customer experience for Irvine, Calif.-based Sage North America, a provider of management software. "Here's the facts of what we find ourselves in; here's the emotional side. As a good leader you have to humble yourself a little bit and allow yourself to be vulnerable and engageable."

Here's how to apologize in a sincere way: 1. Be sincere; 2. Proceed.

If you're finding sincerity difficult, we'd like to offer some tips.

Dig deep. Deeper. A liiittle deeper. Good. Now, eye contact. No smiling. Chin down. Lower. Imagine you're a dog who's eaten part of--not all of--a meatloaf off the counter.

However, you don't want to look too sorry. You're not a supplicant here. And you're not beneath the other party. After all, what you're doing is a dignified thing. What you're doing is a powerful thing. You're ending a grudge and regenerating good will. If done the right way, an apology can take a broken relationship and not only fix it but make it stronger than it was before. It's a powerful investment. It doesn't cost a thing. And if you follow through on its promise, it lasts forever.


Key Technical Matters

Reading your apology from a set of prepared notes does not connote sincerity.

Having a representative read your apology from a set of prepared notes really does not connote sincerity.

Eye contact.

No muttering.

An apology has three main parts: acknowledgement; explanation; expression of remorse.

If you're not covering all three, it's not an apology.

An apology should not include the words if or but. Those are qualifying words that render an apology meaningless.

And is fine.

Since your moral standing diminishes exponentially with each passing day, an apology is most effective if it comes before the offense has even been acknowledged by the offended party.

But once the offense has been acknowledged by the offended party, the apology should be offered no less than 24 hours later. Anything sooner, and your apology will seem rushed, insincere and hollow.

"I'm sorry if you got offended" is not an apology.

"I'm sorry, you pathetic nuisance" is not an apology.

"I'm sorry-ish" is not an apology.

"I'm not in any way sorry" is not anywhere close to being an apology.

"Hugging it out" may be suggested only by the offended party.

"High-fiving it out" is not really a thing.

"Crying it out" is a little much.


Quiz: Should you apologize?

1. Since the event in question, how many times have you awakened in the middle of the night tossing and turning?
A. 1 (2)
B. 2 (4)
C. 3 (6)
D. 4 or more times (8)
E. Shh. I'm trying to sleep here. (0)

2. That regret you feel …
A. Pang (1)
B. Twitch (3)
C. Stitch (5)
D. Paroxysm (20)

3. Would your mother be proud of you right now?
A. Yes (0)
B. No (5)
4. Say "I'm sorry" out loud. Feel better?
A. Yes (8)
B. No (0)

5. It's OK. Let it out. There, there. We all make mistakes.
A. I've just [sob] been carrying this burden
around [sob] for so long [sob]. (30)
B. Are we done here? I've got work to do. (0)

Fewer than 10 points: You don't need to apologize.
More than 10 points: Apologize.
More than 15 points: Apologize.
Follow up with a fruit basket.

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